Addressing the crowd before the opening night performance of “Songs for a New World,” Oct. 17 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, Mark S. Hoebee, the theater’s producing artistic director (and also the director of “Songs for a New World”), wryly mentioned that the last play the theater presented before the pandemic struck, and the whole world put on masks, was “Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber,” in February and early March of 2020.
I found myself thinking of “Unmasked” later in the evening too, as “Songs for a New World” reminded me of it, in some ways.
“Unmasked” was a collection of Webber-written songs, linked by Webber talking about them and his life, on pre-taped videos, between the numbers. “Songs for a New World” is, similarly, a song cycle, written by Jason Robert Brown (whose other credits include “Parade,” “Honeymoon in Vegas” and “The Bridges of Madison County”) but with even less glue holding the material together.
I thought that, like “Unmasked,” it had some great moments. But I came to the same conclusion that I did after “Unmasked,” which is that without a story, it’s awfully hard to make a bunch of theatrically presented songs more than the sum of their parts.
The high points are almost all delivered by one of the four actors, Carolee Carmello, who sings and acts with ferocious, show-stealing energy on songs such as “Just One Step” (about a shrill woman trying to get back at her cheating husband by threatening suicide) and “Surabaya-Santa” (a very funny song about Santa Claus’ bitter, dissatisfied wife, delivered with echoes of Lotte Lenya and Marlene Dietrich). While these songs supply comic relief, Carmello also provides the evening’s emotional high point with the wistful, soul-searching ballad, “Stars and the Moon.”
All four actors have strong voices, though only Roman Banks is able to offer much as a dancer. The pairs of male and female characters suggest purposely constructed opposites: Mia Pinero usually comes off as sweet and sincere and wide-eyed; the older Carmello as toughened by her sometimes disappointing experiences in life. Banks’ numbers are full of youthful passion and focus; the older Andrew Kober projects an air of casual sophistication and even, at times, diffidence.
The show’s title and its opening song, “The New World,” lead you to believe that discovering or yearning for new worlds — whatever that means, for different characters — will be the theme of the show. “A new world calls across the ocean/A new world calls across the sky/A new world whispers in the shadows, ‘Time to fly, time to fly!’ … In that one moment, you start to believe there’s nothing to fear,” sing the actors in “The New World.”
Brown has also said about the song cycle, “It’s about one moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.”
But it’s almost impossible to fit some of the songs into that framework. In the bittersweet “The World Was Dancing,” Kober plays a man who links a dark episode in his family’s past to his own fear of commitment. In Banks’ “The Steam Train,” an inner-city kid, who has grown up in dire circumstances (“There were 12 boys in my fifth grade class … Four of them are in jail, six of them are dead,” he tells us) brags of his basketball skills.
One song, sung by Banks, is set “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492,” according to the program, though there is nothing in the lyrics themselves to indicate that. Carmello’s “The Flagmaker, 1775” addresses the futility of war (“One more star, one more stripe/Till this foolishness is done”), though, again, you would need to read the program to know the time and place that is intended.
There isn’t much to the set design (it’s pretty much an empty stage) or the costumes (there is no unifying element among the outfits the four actors wear; they almost seem, purposely, to be as different, stylistically, as possible). But Charlie Morrison has come up with some clever lighting effects to enhance certain songs.
Pianist Sinai Tabak plays in the middle of the stage, near the actors, adding to the idea that this is really just a glorified cabaret show. (The other eight musicians sit further back.)
Not surprisingly, since this is the Paper Mill Playhouse, there is a lot of polish to this production. But all the polish in the world can’t hide the fact that “Songs for a New World” is not, as Brown said, about “one moment.” It’s about many different kinds of moments that one experiences in life, and it presents them in a scattered, uncohesive way.
“Songs for a New World” will be at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Nov. 7; visit papermill.org.
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